Pumping You Up

These 10 strategies will help you look as big as possible — right away.

January 24, 2011

Want to impress your date tonight? Or catch the eye of someone at the gym today during your workout? Contrary to popular thought, it is possible to improve your physique nearly immediately. With a few key techniques, you can increase your muscle pump, or the size of your muscles. It’s not a plan that requires months of work, either (although you should be continuing to work hard in the gym before and after this program). Instead, you can plan your pump so that you’re guaranteed to look your best on the first day of spring break or just in time for your best friend’s wedding. And while it won’t last forever, the pump can also lead to better long-term growth.

Bodybuilders and fitness models have long understood the importance of fluid balance in presenting the appearance of an improved physique. Bodybuilders work very hard to drop fluid from areas such as their abs, while they seek to fill up the muscle bellies of their arms, chest and other bodyparts. Here, we borrow some of those secrets to engorge target muscles. Whether you’re just taking some pics of yourself or trying to look your best for an event, here are 10 strategies that you can use to look great when the focus turns to you. 

Strategy No. 1: Take arginine before you train.

Arginine is a crucial amino acid for many physiological processes. Chief among these is its ability to increase nitric oxide in your body. When you supplement 3 to 5 grams of arginine before your workouts, you’ll notice that you look more vascular and that your muscles feel more pumped. Increased nitric oxide helps dilate your blood vessels, which allows for more blood, oxygen and nutrients to flow through them. You’ll particularly notice this with the muscle group you’re training. For instance, when you’re performing barbell curls, your biceps will feel more engorged and the veins will pop out more than they usually do. Take your arginine dosage within 30 minutes of starting your workout for best results.

Strategy No. 2: Work out right before you want to look your best.

You already know that you look your best right at the end of your workouts — your muscles are engorged with blood and they appear much more detailed, revealing more vascularity than at any other time of day. It’s hard to keep your pump for more than an hour or two, so plan your day so that your workout falls an hour or so before you want to look your best. During your workout, make sure you emphasize pumping all the muscles you want to enhance rather than performing a standard bodypart split on this day. (See Strategy No. 5 for more on this.)

Strategy No. 3: Supplement with creatine.

Creatine is the ultimate volumizer, helping to pull fluids and nutrients into your target muscles when you train them. It’s a great companion to arginine supplementation because creatine is made in your body from arginine, glycine and methionine, but you’ll get even more impressive results when you supplement with it rather than relying on your body to manufacture it. Creatine works through two mechanisms: First, it provides your body with more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short; second, it pulls more fluid into your muscle cells, providing the pumping effect. This not only helps your target muscles look larger in the short term but also helps you train harder for better long-term gains.

If you’re taking creatine monohydrate, you need to load five to seven days before your target day by taking 5 grams four-to-five times per day with meals. If you’d rather not load or you can’t afford the time, take 2 to 5 grams of creatine hydrochloride, Kre-Alkalyn or creatine ethyl-ester both before and after your workouts.

Strategy No. 4: Drink more water.

Taking in more fluids to enhance your pumps only makes sense, but it’s often overlooked. If you want more blood volume in your body and in your target muscles, then you want more water volume. Water is the largest component of the human body, and taking in plenty of water before, during and after your workouts will help increase the fluid in your system — and in your target muscles. To really drive your muscle pump, start drinking plenty of fluids early in the day. Strive to get in around 1 gallon of water total, spread fairly evenly throughout the day. To maximize pump, drink about 32 ounces 30 to 60 minutes before you train, and continue to drink water slowly throughout your workouts.

Strategy No. 5: Perform pumping exercises for your target muscles.

Some workout strategies are better for pumping muscles and some are better for building muscles over the long term. Performing isolation moves with lighter weights and deep contractions allows you to really drive fluids into your target muscles. Choosing easy-to-perform compound moves, such as on machines, is also effective.

When you want more of an overall pump, choose moves for each bodypart that you want to pump, then perform a few high-rep sets (in the 15- to 20-rep range) with light weights. Good pumping exercise choices include leg extensions (quads), hamstring curls, machine presses (shoulders and chest), cable pulldowns (back), standing calf raises, cable pressdowns (triceps) and cable curls (biceps). For more on how to perform these moves for sets and reps, see Strategy No. 8.

Strategy No. 6: Carb-load around your workout.

When you take in carbohydrates, they not only fuel your workouts but also pull water into muscles (thus their full name, carbo-hydrate). These carbs are held in your muscles as glycogen, giving your muscles a more full appearance. This muscle glycogen will be stored until it is needed for subsequent workouts. Before you train, take in 40 to 50 grams of carbs, such as maltodextrin, in a 1-to-1 ratio with protein. After your workouts take in simple carbs, such as dextrose or glucose, with protein in a ratio of 1-to-2 of protein to carbs, getting 40 to 50 grams of protein and up to 100 grams of carbs.

Strategy No. 7: Increase your sodium intake.

Competitive bodybuilders avoid sodium for a couple days before they compete because they know it’s going to make them retain fluids. And some of these retained fluids lie outside the muscles, under the skin, obscuring some of the details of a ripped physique. However, when you want muscles to become more engorged, increased sodium intake (in the form of salt) will drive more fluid into your blood system, helping to pump up muscles. You can consume about double your normal salt intake on your pumping day. This means the average person can take in up to 5 grams of sodium during his or her pumping phase.

You may have noticed or read about the fact that pro bodybuilders will often add 10 to 15 pounds within a day or two after a bodybuilding competition. Much of this is because they are adding sodium — and the fluid retention that comes with it — back into their diets after cutting it out for their competition.

Strategy No. 8: Use the 10x10x10 training scheme.

As mentioned earlier, emphasizing isolation or easy-to-perform compound moves will help enhance pumps. Another way to boost pumps is through set and rep choices. In the 10x10x10 scheme, you perform 10 sets of 10 reps of a manageable weight for one exercise, completing it in 10 minutes. To do this, choose one move — such as dips, seated rows or incline machine presses — for each bodypart that you want to pump.

Here’s an example of how this could work: Perform one set of dips for 50 percent of your max reps. In other words, if you can perform 18 dips, then only perform nine dips. This should take 20 or so seconds. Rest until the entire 60 seconds has expired, then perform your second set of nine reps. Your goal is to complete nine reps for each of these 10 sets within 10 minutes. By the end of the 10th set, you’ll have a tremendous pump in your triceps, particularly when you’re employing the other strategies included in this article.

Strategy No. 9: Combine whey and soy in your pre- and postworkout drinks.

You should already be taking whey before and after workouts because it digests quickly, sending aminos to start repairing your torn-up muscle tissue. However, it has another benefit for those seeking the ultimate pump. It contains certain peptides (protein molecules) that have been shown to increase blood flow to the muscles. The best part? This works via a different pathway than nitric oxide. But just in case your nitric-oxide-booster weren’t enough, soy contains a high proportion of arginine, just to make sure nitric-oxide levels remain high.

Strategy No. 10: Try Pycnogenol.

Pycnogenol is an antioxidant flavonoid from the French maritime pine tree that increases the activity of the enzyme nitric-oxide synthase, helping to convert arginine into NO. As such, Pycnogenol is particularly beneficial when it’s paired with arginine supplementation. Studies have demonstrated that the pump that comes from arginine supplementation may be dramatically enhanced with the support of Pycnogenol. For best results, look for products that contain 50 to 100 milligrams of Pycnogenol.